When Russia launched a missile from Earth that destroyed an old Soviet satellite on Nov. 15, the explosion created thousands of pieces of debris — a virtual cloud of bullets — that will spread through near-Earth orbit or fall to the ground.
This is a serious risk to astronauts, telecommunications satellites and other critical space systems, including even Russia’s own.
The test was a thoughtless exercise that will intensify the race to militarize space. And it added to the growing cloud of debris that, in the next few years, is expected to double the number of “avoidance maneuvers” satellite operators will be forced to undertake.
What was Russia hoping to gain, and how should the U.S. respond?
As a U.S. State Department spokesman said of the test: “Today, miles above us, there are American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station. What the Russians did today, with these 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris, poses a risk not only to those astronauts, not only to those cosmonauts, but to satellites of all nations.”
The new U.S. Space Command, which monitors the debris, pointed out that in addition to those trackable pieces, there are “hundreds of thousands” of smaller bits. About half the fragments from the Russian test will fall to Earth within a couple years. (Fortunately, there are no reported instances of people being seriously injured by the tumbling debris.)
The director of the NASA, former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, and I go way back. When I was commander of U.S. Southern Command, we often traveled through Latin America and the Caribbean. He has a solid grasp of national security issues. He also knows space: He was a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986.
In a phone call, Nelson told me the Russian drill was “unconscionable” and indicated it was a surprise not only to American astronauts, but to their Russian counterparts as well. We agreed that it was probably the Russian military acting on its own.
How much of a threat can a tiny bit of space debris be? Consider an earthbound analogy. On a U.S. aircraft carrier, before every launch, crew members meticulously walk the flight deck to find even the tiniest bit of metal, because a single piece of “foreign object debris” can disable the engine of a multimillion-dollar jet. Russia has basically released a vast number of FODs into low-Earth altitude, which contains trillions of dollars of vital high-tech equipment.
It’s important to look at Russia’s test in the context of the increasing weaponization of the cosmos. The U.S., China and India also conduct military operations in space. These involve sophisticated intelligence collection (conducted visually, electronically and thermally); targeting for ground-based missile systems; navigational support for military platforms; monitoring of communication systems (cell phones in particular); and enhancing military communications both in space and on Earth.
Russia’s test wasn’t an end in itself. It was the next step in the development of its cutting-edge anti-satellite system, known as Nudol. Moscow has previously shown an ability to use a satellite to attack another satellite. India and China have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities as well. Of course, the U.S. has its own systems and tests. But in using a missile and creating a vast debris field, Russia crossed a dangerous line.
How should Washington respond? In terms of diplomacy, the U.S. needs to confront Russia (and any other nation conducting similar tests) with a public shaming and incontrovertible evidence of its recklessness — much as Washington does with state-sponsored cybercrimes. The U.S. needs to ensure that allies, partners and friends similarly condemn missions that increase levels of space debris. International organizations such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the European Space Agency should be engaged as well.
The Space Force, created in 2019, is a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces — technically on a par with the Army and Navy. There will probably be a Cyber Force before too long, and the two branches will be deeply intertwined, as everything that happens in space is dependent on a secure communications ecosystem.
For a nascent entity, the Space Force already has a big job: Carefully tracking U.S. space assets to position them for safe transit among the debris; developing strategies to counter potential Russian operations against key national security satellites; working on operational planning with nontreaty allies that have advanced space capabilities, such as Japan; and ensuring that the government is purchasing the right technology to defend and deter in space.
The heavens are a shared zone of human endeavor, and as Nelson said to me, “Every nation has a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris and to help create a safe, sustainable space environment.” Russia just showed how hard that shared endeavor will be.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO. His latest book is “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”
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